Demonetization: Too Much Too Soon

Length Estimate: Long (words > 1000)

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Sorry for the absence last week. I was derailed by an event of world-historical proportions – the American election results  the conclusion of my research on Indian land reforms and colonial peasant revolts. I actually wrote the following piece on the Great Indian Demonetization last Monday and sent it out to various online news outlets as a contribution. Due to the lack of response I have decided to post it below. A week has passed since this piece was written and many of the concerns that are outlined below have been vindicated in the meantime. The long-running tropes of administrative inadequacy and legislative myopia were baked into the demonetization cake and many commentators were similarly skeptical about its likely outcomes. Although I don’t want to ascribe more importance to this event than it deserves by making it the subject of an article, its resonance with the themes covered in this blog makes it fair game.

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Using Cheat Codes

Length Estimate: Long (words > 1000 )

Anyone who played video games in the era of the early Grand Theft Autos and Warcraft remembers the amazing power of cheat codes. Here was a way to transcend all the grinding and hard work through a simple keyboard or controller combination to progress further in the game. I recall punching in “allyourbasearebelongtous” to advance through nearly all of Warcraft III just to get through its incredibly compelling storyline. The problem with cheat codes, quite obviously, was that they didn’t make you better at the game at all; I realized that after I got comprehensively beaten in almost every Warcraft game I played online. Cheat codes unlinked the theoretical relationship between game completion and player competency that made video games a nominally productive exercise. On the other hand, being competent at Grand Theft Auto makes for rather low stakes.

The purpose of this labored meditation on cheat codes is to set up an analogy. Continue reading “Using Cheat Codes”

Of States, Narco-Outfits and the Economist

Length Estimate: Long (words > 1000)

In its August 27th, 2016 issue, the Economist magazine ran articles on two prominent extralegal organizations that relied on the trade in narcotics for funding their organization. The organizations in question are Camorra, the Italian mafia outfit and subject of Robert Saviano’s book Gomorrah, and the FARC, a Colombian left-wing guerrilla army. The magazine’s treatment of these topics is a glaring example of the inconsistencies of its liberal, free market ideology.

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A Technical Issue

Length Estimate: Medium (500 < words < 1000)

In his books Thinking Like A State and Two Cheers for Anarchy, the scholar James C. Scott writes extensively about how high-level bureaucratic actors like governments and corporations attempt to fit existing situations into a legible schema in order to achieve some pre-determined goal. One of his striking examples is the advent of scientific forestry in Germany, where monoculture forests were designed in order to maximize the output of lumber per unit of forest. The state saw the forest not as a complex ecosystem with multiple uses but as the repository of a single useful resource that ought to be extracted with the greatest possible efficiency. This experiment yielded spectacular results for a century – i.e., three generations – before things fell apart. Disaster struck when the benefits of a rich soil created by centuries of mixed, natural forest wore out and the “scientific” forest was exposed to threats that it had not been designed to overcome. This is only one of the many times that an understanding of a problem in purely technical terms – as something to be solved through the application of scientific understanding of natural laws – has resulted in utter failure.

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Solar Snake Oil

Length Estimate: Medium (500 < words < 1000)

In last week’s post, I began an inquiry into India’s energy situation and the feasibility of its ambitious plan to install 100 GW of solar power by 2022. One of my primary concerns is how such a massive infrastructural program will be financed and whether this investment represents the least wasteful way to lower the country’s carbon footprint. Consequently, I have been researching the topic of climate finance extensively and there are some interesting aspects of that issue that I will flesh out in future posts. Currently, I am getting the impression that we are approaching climate change in a manner akin to the passengers of the Titanic rejecting lifeboats in favor of building an entirely new-and-improved, iceberg-proof Titanic from the parts of the existing ship. In this post, however, I want to highlight the difficulty of replacing conventional electricity with solar using an example that is representative of the challenge that faces the Indian solar effort.

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India’s Contradictory Energy Policy

Length Estimate: Long (words > 1000)

“Whenever I talk to my officers, I say the environment is non-negotiable. But there is no viable alternative to developing more coal. Energy requirements have to be met.”

The above quote is from a detailed 2015 Guardian report on Indian electricity production, and captures perfectly the environment-growth dilemma that characterizes the serious contradictions contained in India’s approach to energy use.

Debates surrounding carbon emissions of India and China typically rely on argument that  developing countries should not be subjected to the burden that is largely a result of fossil fuel-powered Western development. Having only recently recovered from the deleterious history of colonialism, the developing world is in no mood to again sacrifice its prosperity because of apparent Western greed and myopia. In fact, the impetus is on the developed world to cut its emissions drastically and let the developing world have its way with the planet.

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Hanjin There

Length Estimate: Medium (500 < words <  1000 )

Recently, the seventh largest shipping company in the world – Hanjin of South Korea – collapsed. The sources from which I get my news called it a Lehmann-esque event, referring to the collapse of American investment bank Lehmann Brothers in 2008 that prefaced the Great Recession. However, the issue has largely subsided after a brief spike of interest; if you hadn’t been keeping up with the news last week you would have missed that it happened altogether. There is, after all, a farce presidential campaign going on and anything not immediately relevant to it is relegated to second-class citizen status.

This state of events raises questions about the people who determine what we get to consume as news, but this is not relevant to this post. The internet has allowed for an explosion of information and we naturally tend towards easy to digest, curated sources from dubiously objective and somewhat reliable “news” organizations. But it has also lead to an abundance of independent blogs that cover material often considered news-unworthy by these organizations. So, there is at least the opportunity to self-select yourself into knowledge that is more relevant than the latest report on how this-or-that important person holds this-or-that shocking belief.

Anyway, I digress. The collapse of Hanjin is not only not a one-off event, but it is indicative of a larger global situation that has received little coverage in the mainstream news outside of a few heterodox opinion columns.

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Marketworld

Length Estimate: Short (words < 500)

Uber Slammed for Surge Prices After New York City Bombing

So Uber users attempting to return home after the Chelsea bombing in New York were faced by surge pricing.

Surge pricing is how Uber incentivizes drivers to meet an excess of demand for rides. The stakes were even higher here, of course, since why would drivers head into a potentially dangerous area to pick up passengers? Altruism doesn’t pay. Perhaps there should have been an Uber for 9/11 first responders, so that people who they rescued could be charged for the cost of their future cancer treatment first. If that’s the way we incentivize altruism (if it is still altruism), then let’s apply it as much as possible.

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The Politics of Being a Central Banker

Length Estimate: Medium (500 < words < 1000)

When Subramaniam Swamy questioned Raghuram Rajan’s Indian-ness, I thought it was just another instance of the BJP using its curiously contradictory nationalism to attack any perceived threats to its political and economic agenda. Although to me it was a laughably cheap mode of attack, it was apparently effective enough to lead to Rajan’s resignation.

I have thought a little about this, and it turns out there is more to Swamy’s anti-national raving than I had initially realized. Not that it makes it any better.

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